Friday , May 17 2024

Book Review: ‘Impossible Histories’ by Hal Johnson from Odd Dot

Impossible Histories

Impossible Histories by Hal Johnson, published by Macmillan/Odd Dot, takes history and spins it on its head in unexpected ways. Johnson has already proven himself as a player with historical documents, with works such as Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods, spinning stories for kids about the Snoligoster and Hoop Snake listed in the 1910 folklore book by William Thomas Cox. He applies this same attention to detail and inspiration from the past to the flow of historical events, showing what might seem impossible but could very well have happened.

Impossible Histories

While alternative history is a well established genre, going back as far as ancient Rome and even having an essay by Winston Churchill as one of its hallmarks, there is always something new to explore. Even in covering one of the most thoroughly trodden what-ifs, about Germany winning WWII, Johnson shows an original analysis of the psychology behind Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler in 1939, suggesting a saner Hitler would have secured peace on his western flank before turning on the USSR. He notes that one little change would need to be backed up by a lot more sanity to achieve a thousand-year Reich that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

In Impossible Histories, Johnson casts a wide net to find loose strings of history to pull. Many what-ifs are ideas such as famous figures like Alexander the Great achieving a dynasty with a stable empire that lasts a millennium, or Jimmy Carter launching a nuclear war, focusing on the destructive fallout in every sense of the word. Other topics might be new to readers, such as Julian, the late Roman emperor who died campaigning in Persia in 363 but could have lived to create a hybrid of Roman and Christian religious beliefs that would have changed everything in our modern world. The range is broad, from Crusades to interactions between Europeans and Native Americans to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s condemnation of slavery and, surprisingly, religious leader Jonathan Edwards and Hamilton’s favorite villain, Aaron Burr.

Cause and Effect

For each of Impossible Histories’ thought-experiments, Johnson provides a clear causal chain to show the context of the historical events in detail. The book could have gone on and on, but Johnson balances getting to the point with the necessary historical name-dropping to show what is going on. He mentions in the opening Notes, “Every sentence in this book, including this one, should be accompanied by a footnote enumerating the exceptions, the ambiguities, and the points of contention. Every footnote would need its own footnotes, of course.” Readers can expect to learn a great deal and may want to keep a bookmark on hand to learn more about Zoroastrianism when it comes up. The endnotes are packed with references for additional reading for those who cannot get enough.

Along with playing with historical events in Impossible Histories, Johnson gives a final word on tampering with history. “If someone stops you and says hi, your day after that will be pretty much the same as before the hi. But it will, inevitably, be slightly different. Not so different that you’d notice, but all your actions will come a second later than they would have had you not wasted a second returning the greeting.” Those little things compound into big ones, leading to unexpected results like Kaiser Wilhelm stopping World War I in a world where the Mafia never comes to power.

About Jeff Provine

Jeff Provine is a Composition professor, novelist, cartoonist, and traveler of three continents. His latest book is a collection of local ghost legends, Campus Ghosts of Norman, Oklahoma.

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